Peace and the Thorn

“Mellow out,” they say. If I only could.

Adolescent patient quoted by Dr Michael Piechowski
Three times, the Apostle, says he cried,
yet three times denied:
within his side the unnamed thorn remained.
To fester? To infect? No, to be the site of grace,

for only this reply came: My grace
is sufficient; in your weakness will my power be complete.
And when He said weakness He meant
all the foibles and flaws you could name,
the whole litany of human frailty -
all the deal that He assumed
when He was flesh and frail like us.

And so we hope,
and like naked ones in the cold
crave to be clothed.
I for one shiver with shame
when laid bare by how stabbing thoughts
and fears betray me, how I wince
within, without, at every twinge that divides us,
every failed aim at peace.

Though I long
for numbness, or the certainty of some, I turn
in naked longing and set
the beating of an unquiet mind
to the slow, steady peace at the heart of Christ,
to the quiet words of the Word Made Flesh:
All shall be well. All this shall be well.
You too shall be well.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 21

Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah 4:6-8

One of the reasons why Jonah has so little grace for the Ninevites, I suspect, is that Jonah does not actually realise he needs grace himself. It’s one thing to know you need saving in a crisis; it’s another to recognise that you didn’t deserve to be saved, that you were the architect of your own crisis. Jonah as we see him in Chapter 4 has not learnt the lesson of grace that we might expect of him, and this seems odd. Surely if we had experienced what he had, we would come out different on the other side?

There’s a whole array of reasons why we can experience remarkable circumstances of grace yet not become people of grace. One of the reasons I am coming to identify in my own life is a sense of entitlement. We fail to see grace for what it is because we think we are entitled to it. Many of us think it because we “aren’t perfect but aren’t as bad as other people”. We might think it because we judge that the good we do outweighs the bad. Jonah probably thought it because of his national identity as part of God’s chosen people, a people for whom sitting underneath the shade of their own tree or vine had often been an image used by God to describe the flourishing He would give them as part of His covenant with them. But His covenant was always one of grace and always meant as a light for all the world, not, only Israel. The nations were meant to ask: “Who is this God who has come to dwell with His people?” The fact that the people were not themselves extraordinary should have made the covenant He made with them all the more remarkable. But Jonah wants it for himself and his people; he wants the shade of the vine for his own comfort while he watches his enemy fight it out alone.

At Advent, as we remember Jesus coming as a light for the whole world, it’s a challenge to think: are we seeking that light purely for our own benefit or are we seeking to be beacons of that light to others? We can start by being amazed that the light is ours to enjoy and share in the first place, and then ask God to show us how we can be His beacons and light-bearers. Otherwise it’s too easy to slip into entitlement and think, “I know there is grace for all people, but God didn’t need to use it much on me.” It’s not hard from there to become Jonah preparing to watch Nineveh be destroyed even after escaping his own destruction purely by His grace.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 15

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

Jonah 3:10

This should really be where the book of Jonah finishes. And in many children’s bible versions, it does finish here. The narrative arc of the disobedient prophet turned good is concluded. We have a happy ending. Roll the credits over scenes of Ninevites rejoicing.

Of course, it doesn’t finish here: all of Chapter Four still lies ahead of us. But it’s worth pausing here nonetheless because it’s a natural break in the story and, really, one of the most remarkable details in the story.

The book of Jonah embarrasses many people because of its miraculous details, namely the storm calmed by the sacrifice of Jonah, the swallowing by the fish, the return unharmed to dry land. Many feel that the book cannot be historical because of these details. Yet the conversion of Nineveh is every bit as miraculous. The Assyrian Empire was known for its brutality, and not long after this story is set the Assyrians would conquer the kingdom of Israel despite this momentary turn to Yahweh. Is this also a fiction? Nationalistic propaganda from Israel? Not likely: the fact that the story doesn’t end here but goes on to show Jonah’s petty reaction to God’s mercy undermines the story as a national confidence boost.

Yet it strikes me that, whether or not the story is fully historical fact is not the most important thing to say about it. I am confident that it could be true. The miraculous details should not embarrass us, not if we base our lives on the belief that someone rose from the dead. But the story serves its purpose whether or not the specific details are historical fact.

You see, the book of Jonah functions as a very powerful test of what boundaries we put around grace. It asks us to imagine our worst enemies, whoever we consider least deserving of forgiveness – the Nazis, Pol Pot, Stalin, Attila the Hun, the drunk driver who killed our family – and says, “Now go and tell them to repent, and watch me save them from their sins.” The reality is, God has done this, and does this every day. And it should make us uncomfortable, far more than the question of whether a man can be swallowed whole by a giant fish and live. It should make us squirm, and then we should reflect that this, just this, is the very thing that has happened to us. And we should imagine ourselves with the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge, the drunk driver, the Ninevites, and Jonah, glorying in the illogic, the recklessness of it all.

The Gospel Reading

The day had gone on long enough.
First the Pharisees and their questions,
then the intruding children,
then the camel and the needle's eye,

so that, when they cried out,
"Who then can be saved?" it was
as much from the weariness of the day's
debates as the thought that riches
could keep an earnest man from heaven.

And so, right when
all their careworn sandles seemed
not worth the effort, He looked
into eyes and said, "What's impossible
for man is possible for God."
What then? Could God lift
the labour-sick soul, and write
new possibility on its nature?

In the midst of the burden
and the striving, this truth:
Be small. Be like a child.
Be less so I may be more.

Day Zero

On this day
I still wrestled my children
into their clothes,
still raced out the door
too late for comfort,
still pricked my finger with a rose thorn,

still feared that all my labour's in vain,
and found the evening slump
a little close to despair

yet
everything changed, while nothing changed
and mustard seeds of life were at work
whether we noticed
or not.

Changeless

Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours

of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and

chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Collect for Compline, The Book of Common Prayer
Full of contradiction, I am buoyed
by the blossom of change in the trees yet
wearied
by the clock's relentless chime.
Burdened by the weight of change
and the wait for change alike, I am
entangled in the too much too little of days and months.
No clock marks His coming hour,
nor days mar His face.
O beauty ancient and new:
blossom me eternal in You.

Till We Have Our Faces Back

First you will learn about smiles,
how much you smile,
what's contained in a smile,
what's implied in the different degrees of smile:
in a curl of the lip at a funny thought,
in the mouth's outstretched corners
to greet the close acquaintance,
in the sardonic phrase,
the empathic moment.
All these things you will learn
when they cannot be seen.

And eyes. You will learn about eyes.
How readily you can recognise eyes
across a courtyard or carpark, how
much you can guess of a heart or a day
from the eyes poking out above the nose.

And breath. You will learn about breath.
You will taste it, smell it, absorb it all day.
You will choose your words and your silence to preserve
moments when you can simply breathe.
You will long to stand
in the garden
beside your office
and do nothing
in that afternoon air
but take off your mask and breathe.

And faces - you will catch, in their absence,
the beauty, the wonder of faces,
the heart-catching, God-splendoured glory of faces.
You will long for the faces
that you loved and despised,
will search the room for these faces,
will wish that these faces
could transfigure their otherness straight into yours.
You will cover your face
and stifle your breath
and halve your smile
in hope of the day,
to work for the day,
when all of our faces are back.

Werribee Dragonfruit

Strange to be flourishing so far afield;
its home is equatorial, tropical,
not here, among suburban paddocks,
with a straight line down to Antarctica.
Yet, while silver birch weeps
and quince decks boggy ground with its midwinter yellow,
this Malaysian friend greets me with
loud, audacious pink,
asserting its brilliant right to exist,
here, far from home:
fruitless, pointless,
its only purpose to be,
to glory,
and beautifully so.

And who is my neighbour?

Love, sensing Self flex muscles,
Circumvents the question, takes a detour
Along a Jericho road,
A thoroughfare often taken, seldom observed.

Love stretches the story out,
Beyond expectation, beyond our trust,
Defeats its stock of righteous men,
Then surprises with a foe.

Love befriends the enemy,
Gives face and heart to the hated one.
Love helps us up the donkey's back,
Carries us safe, far from home.

Love takes flexed muscles, unflexes them,
Unwinds Self's tautly wrought syntax.
Wrong question, Love says. True question is:
Whose neighbour am I?
Van Gogh, The Good Samaritan